Willie Mullins is showing no signs of taking his foot off the gas
Cheltenham’s most successful trainer Willie Mullins sends warning ahead of the Festival as he says he may have his strongest team yet… as he targets Gold Cup glory with Galopin Des Champs
- Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer in Cheltenham history with 88 wins
- Mullins, who sent out 10 winner last year, warns this could be his strongest team
- As a result, Mullins has been named as the bookmakers favourite to win this year
Willie Mullins is showing no signs of taking his foot off the accelerator as he prepares what he ominously warns may be his strongest team yet for this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
It is getting on for 30 years since the master of Closutton first struck Festival gold in the 1995 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Tourist Attraction. Almost three decades later, he is out on his own with a staggering haul of 88 winners at National Hunt racing’s most glorious event.
Mullins has continually broken through barriers that would have once looked impossible for an Irish jumps trainer, his most recent notable achievement coming in late January as he smashed by the 4,000-winner mark, while last year’s Festival was a microcosm of the 66-year-old’s increasing dominance as he saddled 10 of the 28 horses to enter the hallowed winner’s enclosure across the four days.
But while he has achieved just about everything this great sport has to offer, my latest visit to his impressive base in County Carlow left me in no doubt that complacency will simply not be tolerated by a man keen to insist he never takes his unparalleled success in the Cotswolds for granted.
‘Getting winners at Cheltenham is a relief,’ he said. ‘We’re not going aiming to beat 10, we’re aiming to get on the board if we can and then hopefully a few of the right ones win.
Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer in Cheltenham history and is showing no signs of taking is foot off the gas as he prepares for the 2023 Festival
He’s broken through barriers that would have once been impossible for an Irish jumps trainer
Mullins (pictured holding the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase trophy The Cheltenham Festival 2022) is looking to add to his 88 victories at Prestbury Park during the 2023 Festival
‘Someone said to me the other day we have 10 to 14 favourites and I always reckon only half the favourites win, so that’s not a bad number and if we can get somewhere near that it’ll be great.
‘People expect us to have winners in Cheltenham, but we go there hoping rather than expecting and it’s a relief if we get a winner and hopefully one or two more.
‘I don’t go back to my hotel on a night and open the champagne. I just go there and put my head in my hands and hope for better tomorrow.’
Most trainers would give their right arm to be in Mullins’ position, of course, but that is not to say that it does not come with its pitfalls.
Being the most successful trainer in Festival history clearly brings a significant weight of expectation and pressure, but Mullins is a man capable of dealing with it.
‘I enjoy Cheltenham for what it is, but I don’t enjoy the anxiety,’ he added.
Mullins, who had 10 winners at Cheltenham in 2022, warns this could be his strongest team
Mullins is the first to admit he would not be where he is now without a huge supporting cast
‘You forget until you go back there every year that every inch of ground is fought for from start to finish. There’s 20 or 25 runners and every jockey thinks they have a chance, so the fighting for position for the first couple of furlongs is immense compared to your normal day-to-day racing.
‘When you’re looking after the sort of team we bring over, you’re going to have lots of disappointments. Hopefully we have winners as well to counteract that.
‘There is absolutely no given when you go over there. That is what makes it special and makes it hard to win.
‘It’s hard for me to enjoy the Festival. The week after we might enjoy if we’re successful. If not, we’ll just have to suck it up and prepare for the following year.’
Mullins would be the first to admit he would not be where he is now without a huge supporting cast, some of whom are trusted with the task of ferrying more than 60 highly-strung animals across the Irish Sea ready to compete to the best of their abilities at Prestbury Park.
Ireland’s perennial champion trainer admits preparing such a squad for travel is a huge logistical challenge and things can inevitably go wrong.
CHELTENHAM TOP TRAINER ODDS
Willie Mullins – 1/8
Gordon Elliott – 7/1
Nicky Henderson – 8/1
Paul Nicholls – 33/1
Henry de Bromhead – 33/1
Gavin Cromwell – 50/1
Joseph O’Brien 50/1
Emmet Mullins – 66/1
Dan Skelton – 100/1
Charles Byrnes – 100/1
Venetia Williams – 200/1
Alan King – 200/1
Odds via Paddy Power
He said: ‘I haven’t actually sat down to count them, but we normally travel 60-plus horses over and we run around that number again, but sometimes horses are balloted out from the handicaps and other ones might go lame on the eve or the morning of the race and you can’t run them.
‘Then sometimes we’re over there and we find we’ve forgotten one, so it’s a quick phone call home for someone to bring the two-box down to Rosslare to the ferry and over to Cheltenham as quick as we can!’
The vast majority of the Mullins horses will, of course, turn up for the gig, with Supreme Novices’ Hurdle hope Facile Vega, Champion Hurdle contender State Man, defending Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Energumene and Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Galopin Des Champs just a few of the names set to fly the Closutton flag with distinction this time around.
With every retiring star, the Mullins conveyer belt appears to unearth an up-and-coming gem to ensure he remains at the top of his game.
He said: ‘I don’t know if it’s the biggest team we’ve ever taken across, but it might be the best quality that we’ve ever had I think.
‘We have the quality and they’re young horses and that’s what you need.
‘We look at the yard as being like a football team – you need young players coming through all the time, you need to find them and bring them on.
‘We seem to have a lovely, young team of horses that will sustain us over the next few years.’
As for what would qualify as a successful Festival for Mullins, he added: ‘I’m just thinking get over there, wash your face as they say and have a few winners – and hopefully horses and jockeys come home safe and our owners have fun and we have fun as well.
Mullins will be ferrying more than 60 highly-strung animals across the Irish Sea ready to compete to the best of their abilities at Prestbury Park
‘When you see the jockeys getting bad falls and getting hurt it brings you back down to earth. Your thinking ‘what sort of a game is this?’.
‘I do admire the jockeys. I didn’t when I was doing it as it was just part of the game, but when you get older you think about it more and it is half-mad isn’t it?
‘When you’re in it you don’t think like that. When I was riding I was thinking there’s nothing as good as this and you hope it can go on forever, but when you get a bit older you start thinking ‘maybe I’ll start training or something else’.
‘I’m surprised how much fun I get out of it compared to what I thought I would. I’m enjoying it now more than ever, even with the stress levels.’
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